Janet Dawson – a celebrated artist
Art is never still; it reflects the times in which it is produced, the individual who produces it and the past which has shaped it. Nor is it a linear progression – it can step sideways, backwards and forwards – but always it is a process of investigation.
Janet Dawson is an artist of intense curiosity. Her sources are extensive and, like many artists with a natural facility, she treads warily between using what is particularly her own and resisting what she already knows she can do. Stylistically recognisable, she has moved between abstraction and figurisation, formalism and realism, at times returning to problems that interested her many years before, as she persistently challenges her perceptions and the work in front of her.’ (Extract from an essay on Janet Dawson by Deborah Edwards.)
Janet Dawson is one of Australia’s most respected and celebrated artists. Her work has been the subject of numerous survey exhibitions including the National Gallery of Victoria in 1979, the National Gallery of Australia in 1996, and a nationally touring show in 2006. Dawson was one of the few women to be included in The Field exhibition at the NGV in 1968.
Janet was born in Melbourne in 1935. Aged 11 Janet attended Saturday art classes with H. Septimus Power, his only child student.
She studied from 1951-56 at the National Gallery School Melbourne; 1957-58 Slade School London (painting and lithography); Central School London (etching); 1960 Atelier Patris, Paris. “Printmaking forces one to think conceptually, one has to be economical, one has to consider various states of the print as being vital in themselves, with no possibility of erasure or alteration,” said Janet.
In 1951 Janet began training at the National Gallery Art School under William Dargie where she learned techniques of tonal realism. On his retirement Alan Sumner took over and encouraged students to understand modernism as a continuation of the great classical traditions. His teaching broadened their knowledge of art history like medieval and tribal art.
In 1959 Dawson won a Boise Scholarship for lithography from the Slade School. With a small group of students she travelled through Europe then settled for 6 months in the magnificently sited hilltop town of Anticoli Corrado in the foothills of the Sabine mountains outside Rome. Overlooking the valley she produced fine drawings which suggest the scale and sensuality of the area. These drawings heralded the beginnings of a vocabulary of shapes that reappear in her paintings over the following decades.
She returned to Melbourne in 1960 and worked at Gallery A holding regular solo shows there from the 1960s through to the ’80s. Her early work was predominantly abstract painting, and since the 1980s she focused on figurative subjects including the human figure and still life.
Since her student days Dawson has painted portraits of family and friends. She won the Archibald Prize in 1973, the third woman in the history of the event to do so, for her painting of her husband Michael Boddy, an English-Australian actor and writer. At 195 centimetres, a great girth and a full red beard, he was a giant of a man and his size and relaxed demeanour filled Janet’s award-winning canvas.
Boddy was described as ‘one of the most exuberant spirits in the new wave of Australian theatre in the 1970s and ’80s’. His best known works include co-writing the play ‘The Legend of King O’Malley’ with Bob Ellis directed by John Bell in 1970; his play ‘Cradle of Hercules’ commissioned for the opening season of the Opera House in 1974 starred Jack Charles and David Gulpilil.
In 1974 Janet and Michael moved to Binalong New South Wales and in 1977 moved to a larger, more remote property they named Scribble Rock where they remained for 40 years. In that time Janet painted, drew trees, clouds, vegetables and animals. Janet and Michael’s artistic lives thrived in this environment and their creative output is testament to their artistic achievements over many years.
Janet and Michael moved to Canberra in 1981 to help establish Theatre ACT, a professional theatre company, Janet as graphic and set designer and Michael as director, actor and dramaturg. They set up a youth theatre group in Canberra in the 1980s, established the Bugle Press and published a newsletter ‘Kitchen Talk’. Michael was ahead of his time and became a regular newspaper columnist and author on food, natural history, small farming and sustainability.
“Tonal realism is a magnificent method of setting about the first stages of a picture,” says Janet. “I often start a work that way, then other concerns take over. I no longer bother to separate the various styles in my mind. I sue what’s useful when it’s needed. But there’s no need to stick to a programme.”
Clouds all the way – a bus trip Sydney to Canberra
Nancy Severs Gallery June 2019
“Clouds inhabit the sky. They live in our languages: ‘Her eyes were clouded’ – ‘lonely as a cloud’ – ‘his antics cast a cloud over the party’ – ‘a cloud of golden hair’.
My devotion to clouds had an early start. A four-year old child playing in the garden. Chooks pecking and scratching nearby. I saw, up in the intense blue sky, a huge white shape. It was the exact white image of the big black hen, scratching around by my feet. She was a Black Orpington, sturdy and bulky. Her name was Fattybottom.
This moment settled all notions of angels, gods and Heavenly Beings. We found them in the clouds and their interaction with Earth is constant.
The group of paintings, Cloud Comics and others is the product of a recent bus ride, Sydney to Canberra, in a Greyhound bus.
The sun was strong and bright, air clear, sky deep brilliant blue, clouds opulent and slow moving, changing shape, mingling and turning with magnificent deliberation.
The many images I took came out startlingly clear and vivid. I have made paintings and drawings from them. Here is a celebration – eighty years of cloud watching. To spend a long bus ride laughing at clouds is a grand reward for an Oldie.” (Janet Dawson 2019.)
Dawson is an artist who feels no need to compete against her peers. Her art-history and literary resources are extensive. She will return again and again to a painting of a piece of literature that interests her; then different energies will balance and convert to spark off a new direction in her work. (Extract from an essay by Christine France 2006.)
Michael died in 2014 and since 2016 Janet has lived with three generations of her family on a rural property in Wallington where she continues to draw and paint in her purpose-built art studio where horses stroll in the sunshine under a clear blue sky and 3 chooks. Janet is planning another Canberra exhibition when the time is right.